Drug War

Prisoners of Pot Prohibition

About 40,000 marijuana offenders are serving time in prison, and some will never get out.

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Now that growing and selling marijuana are legitimate businesses in Colorado and Washington, the injustice of sending people to prison for engaging in those activities is starker than ever before. Last week at Reason.com, for example, Aaron Malin highlighted the case of Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man who has served 21 years of a life sentence he received for a series of marijuana offenses.

In 1984 Mizanksey sold an ounce of pot to a police informant, which led to a search of his home that turned up eight more ounces. Seven years later, acting on a tip that Mizanskey was selling pot, police obtained a search warrant and found less than three ounces in his home.  In 1993 Mizanskey went to a motel room with a friend who planned to buy a few pounds of marijuana. The supplier turned out to be another informant cooperating with police in a sting operation.

Under Missouri's "three strikes" law, those three felonies triggered a mandatory life sentence. As Malin observes, Mizanskey "never hurt anyone, never brandished a weapon, and never sold to children." Yet he was punished more severely than many rapists and murderers. His only hope of freedom lies with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has the power to commute his sentence.

Mizanskey's case is unusual but not unique. In a 2013 report on thousands of nonviolent offenders serving sentences of life without parole, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes 14 other cases where people received that penalty for marijuana offenses. The ACLU's list is not exhaustive, because it includes data for only nine states, plus the federal prison system. It also does not include de facto life sentences imposed as terms of years.

Like Mizanskey, the marijuana lifers in the ACLU report are all victims of laws aimed at "habitual offenders." Terrance Mosley, for instance, is serving a life sentence in Louisiana because police found two pounds of marijuana in a car in which he was sitting. Mosley, who says he was just getting a ride, insists the pot was not his. The driver received probation, but Mosley got life because of two prior offenses he committed as a teenager, both involving small amounts of cocaine.

ACLU

Another Louisiana lifer, Anthony Kelly, likewise was convicted of two minor cocaine offenses as a young man—the first at 19, the second at 21. Four years later, he was visiting a family friend when police searched the house and found 21 small bags of marijuana, totaling about an ounce, in a toilet. A detective accused Kelly of trying to flush the pot, which Kelly denied. That was his third strike.

Leland Dodd, who is serving a life sentence in Oklahoma, had a record that included four drug felonies, stretching back to 1978, when he was arrested for trying to buy 50 pounds of pot from an undercover cop posing as a seller. As he puts it, he was condemned to die behind bars for "talking about buying some marijuana."

Even when habitual offender laws are not involved, people can end up serving de facto life sentences for marijuana offenses. Ten years ago, Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old rap music entrepreneur from Salt Lake City, was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for three small-time marijuana sales. The total amount of marijuana he sold was about a pound and a half, but because Angelos owned guns for self-defense he was convicted of using a firearm in the course of a drug trafficking crime, even though he never brandished a gun, let alone fired one.

Simply possessing a gun was enough to trigger a five-year sentence for the first marijuana sale and a 25-year sentence for each of the other two sales. Under federal law, those sentences must be served consecutively. Angelos therefore received a sentence 40 years longer than the one prosecutors had offered him as part of a proposed plea deal. The judge who was compelled to impose the sentence called it "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

Without the gun charges, Angelos would have faced a sentence of up to five years for each of the marijuana sales. His actual sentence could have been much shorter than the 15 years that prosecutors offered, since the federal mandatory minimums for marijuana require amounts larger than the 24 or so ounces that Angelos sold. Marijuana offenses involving 100 or more plants or 100 or more kilograms trigger a five-year mandatory minimum, a sentence that doubles for a second offense. The 10-year mandatory minimum also applies to first offenses involving 1,000 or more plants or 1,000 or more kilograms. It was this sentencing scheme that inspired Julie Stewart to start Families Against Mandatory Minimums back in 1991, after her brother received a five-year sentence for growing marijuana in Washington, where people can now get a state license to do that.

Washington and Colorado have repealed all criminal penalties for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana and for production and sale by state-licensed businesses (as well as home cultivation of up to six plants in Colorado). But even if you exclude those outliers, state penalties for marijuana offenses vary widely. In Maine, possession of less than 2.5 ounces is a civil violation subject to a maximum fine of $600, and sale of less than a pound is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in jail. In Oklahoma, by contrast, possession of any amount can get you up to a year in jail, and sale of any amount less than 25 pounds triggers a sentence of two years to life.

Texas has lighter marijuana penalties than Oklahoma, but its penalties for offenses involving cannabis concentrates are remarkably severe, as illustrated by the case of Jacob Lavoro. The Round Rock teenager, who was back in court last week for a pretrial hearing, initially faced a charge that carries a sentence of 10 years to life after police caught him with a pound and a half of hash brownies and cookies last April. Williamson County First District Attorney Mark Brunner explained the charge by noting that Texas law includes "adulterants and dilutants" in drug weight, meaning that Lavoro's baked goods could be treated as if they consisted entirely of hash oil.

After the case captured national attention, including a petition signed by nearly 250,000 people urging lenience, Brunner decided to downgrade the charges against Lavoro. Instead of a first-degree felony carrying a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, he is now charged with two lesser felonies related to his possession of hash oil and marijuana. The more serious of those charges is a second-degree felonypunishable by two to 20 years in prison.

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If Lavoro does end up serving time, he will join tens of thousands of other marijuana offenders. In 2004, according to a 2007 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, marijuana convictions accounted for 12.7 percent of drug offenders in state prisons and 12.4 percent of drug offenders in federal prisons. Applying those percentages to thedrug offender numbers for 2011 (225,200 state, 94,600 federal) suggests that roughly 40,000 people are serving time in state and federal prisons for marijuana offenses. That number does not include people serving shorter sentences in local jails, where a total of about 182,000 drug offenders were confined in 2011. Nor does it include the vast majority of the 758,000 people arrested for marijuana offenses that year. Nearly nine out of 10 marijuana arrests are for simple possession, a charge that typically does not result in a jail or prison sentence.

The fact that most people arrested on marijuana charges do not spend much time behind bars does not mean they are not punished. In addition to the humiliation, inconvenience, and expense directly related to their arrest and prosecution, they can suffer lasting ancillary penalties, including disruption of their educations, loss of their professional licenses, and impairment of their employment prospects.

Still, those burdens pale beside the fate suffered by marijuana offenders like Jeff Mizanskey or Weldon Angelos. The relatively lenient treatment of cannabis consumers raises a moral question that no prohibitionist has ever satisfactorily answered. If smoking pot is not such a big deal, how can merely helping people smoke pot by supplying the raw material justify locking anyone in a cage for years or decades?

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

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  1. If smoking pot is not such a big deal, how can merely helping people smoke pot by supplying the raw material justify locking anyone in a cage for years or decades?

    Because you’re engaging in economic activity without paying Uncle Sam for protection.

    1. Damn your quick fingers!

      Anyhoo — Because selling marijuana is a gateway crime leading to selling, um, I don’t know, *Treasury bonds*!

    2. Its deeper than that, I think. Doing anything for your financial self-interest has for years become morally suspect as altruism envelopes our culture–mainly by liberals. If the financial self-interest is combined with supplying a product that is seen as sinful by cultural conservatives–who normally are morally okay with making money, then you truly have no one to defend you. Thus, drug pushers are pariahs to both liberals and conservatives. Their only defenders seem to be libertarians, bless their liberty loving souls.

      1. The only real difference between proggies and socons is the stuff that they want to ban. And they are always more than willing to join forces if it helps ban something that neither of them like.

      2. i love you.

        -FFM

  2. “Drugs are, like, really bad and stuff.”

    “Worse than rape and murder?”

    [insert appeal to ridicule here]

    1. Yes, because they can lead to rape, murder, *and more*.

      1. Yes, because they can lead to rape, murder, *and more*.

        Or becoming the president of the United States.

    2. Well, yeah. I mean, if we divert crime fighting resources away from investigating rape and murder, and instead focus on drugs, we can prevent rape and murder. Because drugs cause rape and murder.

    3. “Yes, because the Blacks and Messicans brought the demon weed with them and they’ll get high and seduce our white wimmins!”

      /1937derp

  3. Sometimes you jsut have to roll witht hose punches.

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  4. Anonbot goes full Quisling.

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  6. As expected, you Libertarians are all wringing your hands over a drug dealer being put in prison. The man has caused untold harm to people with his drug dealing. To deny that is to be incredibly ignorant or a liar.

    I’m glad he is in prison. You people will never be a political force as long as you are pro illegal drugs and pro open borders. Wise up, fools.

    1. The troll quality around here has really slipped since Postrel left.

    2. JohnD, you are a slave master wannabe. If people do things you disapprove of–even though they do not use no force on others–you are ready to use force against them. And you think you are morally superior to others by doing this, too. Your kind are as old and evil as mankind itself.

      1. Do not feed trolls unless they do something creative and interesting.

        1. Your right. He caught me at a weak moment.

          1. All signs point to a particularly stupid Tulpa alter ego.

      2. So, you think it’s wrong to legislate prohibitions based on moral principles that don’t sufficiently value individual liberty…

        and your moral principles require that laws must prioritize freedom before any competing moral value.

        I guess it’s a good thing for you that it’s only wrong to base laws on OTHER people’s moral views and not yours.

        1. What’s moral? A value flapping in the wind. First slavery was moral. Now it’s not. Alcohol was moral. Then it wasn’t. Then it was moral again.

          Government is generally a pretty poor means of controlling “morality”. Just look at the way it steals trillions of dollars from people who earn it, just to piss it away on people who don’t. Where’s the morality in stealing money from people to subsidize an invasion of America?

          First principle of government intervention: If someone is taking an action that affects only themselves or other consenting adults, it’s none of the government’s business. That applies to sex, booze, drugs, suicide and probably other issues as well. Abortion is a little trickier because it involves the question of “when does life begin”? But whether someone rots their brain on drugs and turns into a drooling fool, or liberates their consciousness and goes on to become a world-renown artist or composer – it’s none of the government’s business… and that includes subsidizing the drooling fool so she doesn’t starve to death.

    3. He says after his scotch, coffee, cigarettes, and prescribed pills. As long as Santa Clause has his naughty and nice list there’ll be people and their tear dripping righteousness. There’ll be no pausing and realizing that there is very little difference between cocaine and caffeine, yet one is one list and another on the other. Legal versus illegal determined by a capricious wave of a scepter. In the end, I have very little time for people who caught in circular-logic loops.

      1. Hypothetically, if nicotine and heroin were proven to be equally harmful, it’d not be illogical to refuse to legalize heroin just because tobacco is legal.

        It’s illogical to increase the harm to public health for some silly ideal of consistency. “You have two broken ribs? Let’s break ALL your ribs!”

        1. The war on citizens who use unapproved chemicals causes more problems than it solves, just as the war on alcohol users did.

          The worst thing about such legislation is that it breeds contempt for all laws, even the legitimate ones, and that is destructive to society.

        2. Take away public subsidy of medical care and the issue is moot. You want to rot your lungs out? Go ahead. You want to OD on heroin? Your choice.

          But don’t come to me expecting lung surgery for the cancer you caused yourself. And if your insurance costs are 10x normal because you use heroin, or smoke, that’s your problem.

          The market will adjust to fit the risks that people impose on themselves. That is, if the government gets out of the way.

          300 pounds overweight? Your insurance SHOULD cost more. Smoker? Heroin user? Look for higher premiums.

          What government does is distort the market, making it equally virtuous (as an economic reality) to be a fit, trim, vice-less paragon of morality as a 1200-pound heroin-addicted smoker.

          There is nothing moral about government. Anywhere. At any level. Government is evil. ALL government is evil. It may be a necessary evil. Whether it is necessary can be debated. But that it is evil is beyond debate.

    4. The people who founded this nation believed in liberty.

      You would have hated them.

      1. chattel slavery? (minor omission)

        1. Ah yes. The familiar refrain of “Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner! Therefor everything he said about everything was wrong!” Textbook ad hominem.

  7. These guys shud consider themselves lucky they only got lwop. If I was judge I woulda executed they asses.

  8. Even if the sentences weren’t grossly unfair, is it really a good use of taxpayer money to lock up non-violent offenders for life at a cost to the taxpayer of more than $2 million?

    I’ve read stories about at least half a dozen cops in the past month who have done more damage individually than all the people mentioned in this article combined. Why don’t we put their asses in jail?

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